Skagway became Alaska’s first incorporated city in June of 1900. It got its start because of the 1898 Klondike gold rush. The town once teemed with more than 20,000 prospectors, but now the population is a little more than 800 — unless there are cruise ships at the dock. Then the town swells to almost 10,000 in a day. Unlike the other cruise ports in Southeast Alaska, you can actually drive to Skagway from Whitehorse, Canada via the Klondike Highway.
Skagway is blessed with a deep-water port, and it made the perfect starting point for gold-hungry prospectors to climb over the coastal mountains to Dawson City and the Yukon gold fields.
One can’t mention Skagway’s White Pass without also mentioning the town of Dyea. Many gold seekers took their supplies by small boat or ferry over the shallow Taiya River Delta to Dyea. This was the start of the Chilkoot Trail, 33 miles of steep terrain known as the golden stairs. The Chilkoot was shorter, less expensive, and therefore more popular than the less rigorous White Pass route out of Skagway.
The White Pass and Yukon Railway was completed in 1900, after only two years of construction. This convenient route to Lake Bennett and the gold fields beyond soon made Dyea a ghost town. This narrow gauge railroad is an engineering wonder, and is the premier attraction for visitors. The 40-mile round trip lasts approximately three hours, and provides spectacular scenery if the weather cooperates. Some of the original cars, which are now more than 100 years old, are still in use. (If your cruise ship stops at nearby Haines, instead of Skagway, you can still experience the White Pass Railroad by taking a boat to Skagway.)
Skagway has preserved its historic old town with wood plank sidewalks, museums, and false-fronted buildings, many on the National Register of Historic Places. You can tour the downtown area with the Skagway Streetcar Company enjoying its antique touring vehicles and costumed guides. The visitors bureau is located in the unique Arctic Brotherhood Building — its façade is covered with hundreds of pieces of driftwood. The Red Onion Saloon celebrates its history as a brothel with corseted waitresses and tours of the upstairs cribs.
The Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park consists of about 15 restored Gold Rush buildings. Start a walking tour at the museum and be sure to stop at the Mascot Saloon, where period clad statues stand at the bar. During the approximate two years of Skagway’s heyday, the town was ruled by a ruthless con man, Soapy Smith. Smith was killed in a shoot out with the law abiding Frank Reid, and both men are buried in the Gold Rush Cemetery.
If history isn’t your thing, there is still plenty to do in Skagway. Bike tours take you to the top of White Pass in a van, and you can coast down on bikes. Or rent a bike to ride the 10-mile hilly coastal road to Dyea. Hiking the Chilkoot Trail from Dyea requires several days, a permit, gear, and transportation from the other end. Shorter hikes in Skagway go from the southeast side of town uphill to several mountain lakes. The closest, Lower Dewey Lake, is less than a mile up the trail. The Skyline Trail and A.B. Mountain, is a strenuous climb to a 5,000-foot summit. Skagway is a good starting point for “flightseeing” over Glacier Bay National Park. Or you can take a 55-minute flight over the Chilkoot Trail that includes a glacier landing. There is also a helicopter and dog sled tour on Denver Glacier.
The Yukon Gold Rush started in 1897, when a ship landed in Seattle with tons of gold stuffed in trunks. George Carmack and his brother-in-law Skookum Jim found gold the year before near the Klondike River, Yukon Territory. Gold was first discovered in Rabbit Creek, later named Bonanza Creek.
News of the discovery reached the states following years of financial recessions and bank failures. Unemployment was high, and the lure of gold was hard to resist. The least expensive route was by ship from Seattle to Skagway. After reaching the summit, prospectors hiked to Bennett Lake, the headwaters of the Yukon River. They then needed to build rafts or boats to take them over 500 miles down the Yukon to Dawson City.
The prospectors — called “stampeders” — were required by Canada’s North West Mounted Police to carry more than a ton of supplies up the trails in order to enter Canada. Obviously this required many trips up and down the trails to transport all of the supplies. Unfortunately, by the time most of the stampeders reached the gold fields, most of the mining claims were already taken. Many who could not stake a claim stayed on either in Dawson City or Skagway and established businesses that catered to the influx of men, either as supply stores, saloons or brothels.
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